By Ivey Schofield
As part of North Carolina’s year-long campaign to promote outdoor recreation, Bladen County will host a weekend festival this weekend.
The state is partnering with local governments to offer family-friendly trail events in all 100 counties in 2023, which the General Assembly deemed “Year of the Trail.”
The Bladen County event will take place Feb. 17-19 and will feature hiking, mountain biking and paddling.
“We jumped at the chance to showcase the hidden gems of Mother Nature’s playground, especially in the off-season,” said Terri Dennison, president of the Elizbethtown-White Lake Area Chamber of Commerce.
Bladen County, a farming and manufacturing community 60 miles from the North Carolina coast, is known for its abundant recreation opportunities.
The Browns Creek Nature Park and Bike Trail features more than a dozen miles of mountain biking and hiking trails. The Mountains to Sea Trail, which will eventually stretch across the entire state, runs through Bladen County, including near White Lake and Singletary Lake State Park.
Local leaders, including Dennison, hope to further boost Bladen County’s economy by creating a go-to destination for nature lovers.
In North Carolina, outdoor recreation generates 130,000 jobs and $11.8 billion a year in revenue, according to the Great Trails State Coalition, which advocates for more state spending on recreation.
“North Carolina has a significant and growing outdoor recreation economy,” Palmer McIntyre, director of the Year of the Trail, said at a press conference in January. “And trails serve as the backbone of this economic engine.”
Before the festival announcement, Bladen County officials had already been working on ways to promote winter hiking with Joe Miller, who had been bringing hikers and campers to the area for years.
“Those areas give hikers a more pure sense of adventure,” Miller said. “One minute you’re hiking in an open pine savannah, (and) the next you’re weaving through a tight bay forest.”
Now, Miller works for the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. He helps rural communities like Bladen County with Year of the Trail festivities.
Miller, who will be leading a guided hike on Feb. 18, said he hopes Bladen County will be recognized as a hiking destination for locals and tourists across the United States.
“It could easily become a bluebird destination,” he said.
Discounted lodging rates will be available at Camp Clearwater Campground in White Lake and Cape Fear Winery in Elizabethtown for the festival weekend.
“Through this weekend, we hope to build greater awareness of the ways to get outdoors here in our part of southeastern North Carolina,” Dennison said.
Here’s the schedule of events:
Friday, Feb. 17: Participants should check in at the Cape Fear Farmers Market at 3 p.m. A night hike at Jones Lake State Park begins at 6:30 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 18: There will be guided hikes of several parks, a guided mountain bike ride at the Browns Creek Nature Park and Bike Trail and a guided paddle of the Jones Lake State Park. The day will include live music, food and vendors.
Sunday, Feb. 19: Participants can do activities on their own, like walk through the grape vines at Lu Mil Vineyard, play disc golf at Tory Hole Park, tour the Harmony Hall National Historic Site and visit the Cape Fear Winery and Distillery.